The throngs of enthusiastic political junkies and weary poll watchers are left scratching their heads in bewilderment at what is making Kendrick Meek (D) tick. Poll after poll coming out of Florida shows the U.S. Senate race settled by conventional political standards. Every major poll since a Labor Day weekend CNN survey shows Meek unable to budge past 25% against Republican nominee Marco Rubio or current Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist’s sudden switch from longtime Republican to self-saving Independent may be serving a steady dampening blow to Meek’s Senate aspirations.
At some point, observers murmur, Meek should have dropped out already. It’s a point of contention among some Democratic strategists who pulled from the contest a long time ago, leaving the 44-year old Congressman struggling to emerge from political trenches. It even shows in his fundraising numbers, where despite having no debt, Meek’s war chest is less than half of Rubio’s $17 million, still half of Crist’s $13 million. But, it’s something Meek refuses to entertain; that’s not what the bruising 6’3” former Florida A&M football linebacker trained for. It’s not in his constitution to quit. If he had, the hard knock, decaying streets of Liberty City in Miami would have done away with him a long time ago, when he was the quiet, dyslexic son of a single-mom turned Florida’s first African American Congresswoman.
The paradox here is that while Liberty City, where Meek grew up, has a reputation for eating its young – turning whole generations of Black kids into sobering crime, drug, school dropout and statistics – it would also expect Meek to bull ahead to the very end at all costs. It’s the unwritten, yet widely known and stubborn first rule of street credibility, to avoid defeat, particularly in public battles where everything hinges on reputation. On many levels, Meek is caught between a rock and a hard place: dropping out of the race may please party leaders all the way to the White House wincing at the thought of a Rubio win, but it also ruins Meek’s image as the tough-minded legislator who took on former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in a sit-in over civil rights.
It’s an image Meek often conjures up during interviews and debates. He blasted his opponents at one point during the first debate, touting his large frame and state trooper credentials. While “Standing up for the Middle Class” his bold, grassrootsy campaign slogan attempting to separate him from the election pack, Meek has spent years refining his image as no-nonsense and hardcore, despite the neatly carved suits and striped ties. His is the remarkable, almost Dickens’-like journey of a Miami Springs High School graduate who became a star defensive tackle at Florida A&M on full scholarship, then earned his degree in Criminal Justice soon after. All this despite being diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age and being teased by classmates about his slowness at the time.
“Because I was dyslexic there were areas where I wasn’t able to achieve, but because of football I was able to express myself in a way that kept me encouraged about school,” observes Meek in a recent Sarasota Herald-Tribune piece by Zac Anderson. “If it wasn’t for football I probably would not have made it to college,” he said.
And, it’s a life that finds Meek very much wanting voters to acknowledge him as his own Meek rather than the son of the legendary Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-FL), from whom he inherited Florida’s 17th Congressional District in 2003. He’s not accepting the narrative of the dynastic Black political family made good. And he shouldn’t. It’s not what Liberty City would want and, based on his life-story, it’s not what he’s made of.
Meek’s political history reads like an endless boxing match with gloves off. After serving as the state police force’s first Black captain, Meek eagerly entered the family business, politics, from the bottom. He wanted to prove himself beyond the shadow of famous parent, successfully running a bid for the Florida State House of Representatives in 1995. Later, in the state House, he aggressively pursued compensation for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two Black men falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death, but later exonerated.
By 1998, Meek was in the Florida State Senate. From wrestling with a Bush brother over affirmative action to collecting a half-million signatures to put smaller class sizes on the state ballot, Meek was making massive waves that irritated everyone who stood in his path.
It was there where he made history on his own, staging a 25-hour sit-in outside Gov. Bush’s office in 2000 to protest the controversial “One Florida” plan, which would have eliminated affirmative action in state government. Meek’s famous head-butting with Bush became Florida legend, not the way a one-term state Senator makes political friends. At the time, Meek was stunned that two members of the Florida legislature couldn’t get “a meeting with the governor. Then the governor came in and was barking at us as though we were children, saying that if we expect for him to rescind his executive order, then we might as well order some blankets and get comfortable, which we did.”
By 2003, he was in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the son of Carrie Meek would take hits for the political inheritance and the eruption of a scandal involving ties to a convicted developer and another longtime employer, the Kendrick Meek running for Senate pushes forward with intense focus on the goal, much like his days as defensive lineman at Florida A&M.
But, then again, it’s where he’s from.
“This is probably one of the worst situations anywhere in the state of Florida,” says Meek in the Herald-Tribune article. “This is not the kind of district your next senator comes from.”
There’s a certain amount of pride Meek is drawing from that observation, because it’s where he wants Florida to know where he’s from. The riot-ravaged, formerly segregated blight of Liberty City, in Meek’s mind, builds strong character and Senate candidates. The type of Senate candidate that, as of this day, has every intention of seeing it through to the end.
For Meek, it’s a win-win. If he wins, he becomes Florida’s first African American Senator, in a Southern state bedeviled by a long history of racism. How he wins is becoming a nearly impossible proposition if one were to rely solely on polls: it’s a mix of last minute undecided voters; or independents switching; maybe 80 percent of Democrats rallying around him; with 90% of Black voters recognizing he’s actually there and setting aside the familiarity of Crist. Meek is counting on a sudden turn of events; some polls show that he’d be within a few points of the seat if only Crist had let Rubio ride and stayed out. But, Meek has little time to get bitter, only precious time to shake more hands.
But, if he loses the Senate race, he still maintains his famous penchant for knuckling up. His hometown will respect him for staying in the race and a return to Miami-Dade County politics is certainly within reach. And it would have to be something big that contains a sense of purpose, mission and movement. Though he gave up his 17th Congressional seat expecting a trip to the U.S. Senate, Meek could very well take the seat back. Or perhaps, when he finds his way back to Liberty City, for the first time in its history, he finally puts it on the map.